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year in review

FILE PHOTO: Artistic director Ken Gass poses for a photo on the set of the play, The Rez Sisters, in Toronto, Ont. on November 8, 2011.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Canadian theatre saw a whole new cast of characters rise to national prominence in 2012.

Just 12 months ago, these men and women were playing minor, unnoticed roles, but by the end of the year, their names were on the lips of anyone who pays close attention to the not-for-profit theatre sector in this country.

Unfortunately, this wasn't a case of stage stars being born. No, it was board directors of some of the country's most significant theatres who were thrust nervously into the spotlight as a series of controversies erupted.

At a time when theatres are feeling the pinch on all of their revenue streams – government funding, private donations and box-office receipts – boards of directors understandably have became more activist in providing financial oversight. But the desire to avoid risk in tightened times helped drive a series of questionable decisions that will lead to 2012 will going down as the year of boards behaving badly.

Three men in particular – fairly or unfairly – were accused of backstabbing, censorship and throwing in the towel on 49 years of theatrical history, respectively. First there was Ron Struys. A real-estate agent by day, he starred in one of the great dramas of the year by night, titled Factory Theatre Fires Its Founder. The chair of Factory's board, Struys was the face of the board's decision to toss out the company's much-loved artistic director Ken Gass, apparently due to a dispute over costly renovations.

John McKellar – board member at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, a lawyer and father of Tony-winning Drowsy Chaperone creator Don – likewise found himself the subject of furious online diatribes and accusations of interfering with artistic expression. This after playwright Michael Healey alleged that Tarragon had declined to program his political satire Proud because of McKellar's concern that it might provoke a libel suit from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Then, there was Jeff Schulz, chair of the board of governors at the Vancouver Playhouse. On March 9, Schulz had the unenviable task of delivering the most tragic theatrical monologue of 2012, the shocking announcement that one of the country's original regional theatres would be ending operations on the eve of its 50th anniversary due to insurmountable money troubles. The lingering question: Why was this revealed too late for the public to do anything about it?

In a way, I suppose, we should thank these three controversies for bringing the country's often alienated network of city-based theatre communities together in communal outrage and soul-searching time and time again.

Nationally known artists from Atom Egoyan to Martha Henry vowed to boycott the Factory until Gass was reinstated, while theatre companies in Whitehorse and Winnipeg held readings in support of Healey's independent production of Proud.

Vancouver Playhouse's closure, meanwhile, was felt emotionally and financially across the country – producers at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre, the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg and Toronto's Canadian Stage all were left writing down bad debts at the worst possible time.

Most of all, these three cases focussed a nationwide spotlight on a troublesome issue that had not previously been addressed: How much power is wielded, unchecked, by the volunteers who populate the boards that govern theatres across the country?

A good board, no doubt, is worth its weight in gold – fundraising, doing due diligence and providing important checks and balances for not-for-profit artistic organizations.

But more than 30 years after an irresponsible and unresponsive board nearly destroyed the Stratford Festival during a succession struggle, there's still no mechanism to deal with governors who lose touch with the communities in which they govern.

If the directors of a publicly traded company anger their shareholders, the shareholders can vote them out at the next annual general meeting.

In the case of most not-for-profits in Canada, however, boards of directors are in the strange position of being able to hire and fire themselves. This left Vancouver and Toronto artists and audiences feeling impotent as unfamiliar figures delivered decisions that they didn't agree with – or weren't given enough information to understand. In the case of the Factory Theatre debacle, the only way the real "shareholders" of the venerable Canadian institution could demonstrate their opposition was to launch a boycott. But as the board didn't budge, this turned into a scorched-earth campaign that left the fall season in ashes and the theatre community divided.

Artists aren't always right. My sympathy goes out to board members who must deal with artists grumbling about theatres being run by lawyers and businesspeople and real-estate agents who know nothing about art, while begging those same people to raise more money than ever to cover the recessionary gap.

A board member like McKellar, who can be seen at almost every opening in Toronto, is hardly the enemy of Canadian theatre. Heck, he was on the phone with Tarragon's late founder Bill Glassco when he came up with the name for the company in 1970.

Nevertheless, boards need to figure out how to be more responsible and accountable to the communities they serve – and consider more than just the bottom line.

Certainly, the Playhouse's death has become a whodunnit due to information still withheld: Did the Olympics do it? Was it death by a thousand arts cuts? Did the board simply quit rather than fight on?

But while there are lingering questions in each of these controversies, it is the Factory Theatre debacle that will surely go down as a textbook example of poor crisis management; the board members may have won the battle, but they could still lose the war. Indeed, as many have suggested, they may want to take a hard look at the fall-out – and fire themselves.